Thursday, March 29, 2012

800 Words: Epistolary Blogging: Jacques Barzun

Dearest Jacques,
In case there’s anybody who cares (though I have no idea why you would) there is not a single matter of life on which I take a position that is anything resembling conservative, and and only a reactionary could mistaken me for one. This much has been true for me ever since I was an adolescent animal rights protestor who found himself defending all sorts of people he never wanted to defend, merely because God forbid the world should be viewed as something more complex than we, the forces of light and virtue, doing battle with they, the army of darkness who will triumph over us all if I occasionally eat a piece of pizza with unsynthetic cheese on it. Over and over again, I find myself feeling sorry for people I never wanted to feel any sympathy for, merely because the people on my side who trash them seem so stupid, so tonedeaf to the nature of problems, so unwilling to consider a point of view from any side but their own, that there’s no mystery as to why the world’s in bad shape: most of the people who believe the right things are just as dumb as the people who believe the wrong ones. What matters is that you come to conclusion through actual thought, and you entertain the thought that the people who believe differently from you might be right. So if not always approving of every radical solution to a probem is a conservative position, then fine, I’ll be a conservative. If not always trying to preserve every old institution makes me a socialist, then fine, I’m a socialist. But let’s not pretend that there is anything worth living for in a world where there is only one right answer to every question.
Over the course of thirty years, one meets many of these morons, and some of them are quite brilliant. Idiocy can take many possible forms, and just as people can be right and wrong at the same time, people can be utterly moronic simultaneously to being incredibly intelligent. No one has a greater capacity for self-deception than smart people, and no one finds it harder to resist simplistic explanations for a world too complex to understand. Dumb people might be taken in by religion, but smart people are the ones who lead the religions.
Your book, From Dawn to Decadence, gets most things utterly wrong; yet it is, beyond doubt, one of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read. An 800 page history of culture in the last 500 years and its decline, impeccably researched, spectacularly written, air-tightly organized, and thoroughly wise. You trace cultural developments from the Renaissance to the end of the twentieth century in a matter which shows that culture – that dirty word of our time – has been thoroughly exhausted, and can be traced from the romantic spring of the Rennaissance to the authoritarian black comedy (still a happy ending because it ultimately spread the reach of culture) of the Baroque to the bright comedy of neo-classicism, to the tragic crisis of faith in culture which befell Romanticism, to the decadent ironies of modernism. It is so erudite, so utterly well-supported in its arguments that I find it difficult to disagree with any of your conclusions. And yet your conclusions are thoroughly wrong, and I know it even as I read them. You go out of your way to praise writers like Montaigne, Bagehot, and William James whom you feel represent a ‘double vision’ that can get inside the heads of those whom they disagree with so that they might understand different conclusions. Yet you seem completely oblivious to the fact that you thoroughly lack this double vision yourself.
Like all attempts to interpret history, you reduce the unknowable course of human events to a series of biases that can’t help but be spectacularly wrong. Yet you realize that it does not alleviate you, or us, of the burden of the attempt. We either study our origins, and accept that we can only have a bad understanding of the past, or we forget the past and we doom ourselves to a future of ignorance. In the perfect society that can never exist, people like you are the loyal opposition – always present to remind us of what worked in the past even if you are incapable of looking toward the future. Woe betide the country lead by a person (there are many) like you; still living, and turning 105 this year, yet the world seems to have stopped around the time of your birth. The great achievements of twentieth century culture: modernism, cinema, popular music, graphic novels, Keynesian economics, international law, linguistic developments, have completely passed you by, and you dismiss it all with a simple wave of you hand. You only concede that a single 20th century intellectual, Jose Ortega y Gasset (never read’em) has an understanding of the world equal to the greats of the past. You are the very epitome of the brilliant idiot.
It does not occur to you that the chaos that is modern civilization existed in every possible antiquity – with corrosive social degeneration that is forever in conflict with progress and humanism. In every age, there are great humanist artists like Chekhov, Mozart, and Jean Renoir, and there are great (by some people’s definition) anti-humanists like Dante, Wagner, and Stanley Kubrick. Sometimes degeneration wins, sometimes progress does – and we have no way of being certain which side of any issue is progress and which is regression. All we have is unverifiable speculation and opinions – and we do the best we can to make our lives as good as we can. Great historians like are particularly susceptible to the idea that your field have a unified theory; whether it’s the conservative theories Spengler and Niall Ferguson, or the socialist theories of Eric Hobsbawm and Tony Judt.
Like you, when I see how people in our time, in my own generation, have so little regard for the great achievements of the past; who’ve never listened to the entirety of Beethoven’s Fifth, or seen a Breughel drawing, or are bored by Shakespeare, and it fills me with more than sadness; it fills me with disgust. Every time I see people watch Jersey Shore, or dance to Lady Gaga, it makes me wretch. I have no problem with their existence (I even once danced to a long stream of Lady Gaga songs at a wedding. My friends were a little too impressed....), only with their omnipresence. You can't escape either, and it's the sort of groupthink that makes a person somehow 'weird' if they don't want to listen/watch either or hundreds of other pop culture memes that are forgotten nearly as quickly as they become a craze. I don’t want to live in a world without entertainment, but there have to be periods in history when people were more interested in the sublime, the transcendent, the aesthetic bliss only borne of long study, than this one. I think of all the idiots who got a much better higher education than me without learning to appreciate a single thing that’s truly beautiful about the world, and it makes me want to throw something through a window, it really does (Y’all idiots use reality TV and the Top 40 like a crackpipe). But a world like the one for which you wish, in which everyone can resist the urge to indulge in the lower pursuits sounds every bit as hollow, as puritanical, and as unenjoyable as I find our current one. We are the victims of our own success. We live in a world where people experience so much comfort that many of them do not do experience enough life to require Mahler or Chaucer or Werner Herzog or Tom Waits. When every desire in life is so instantly available, what need is there for art that requires thought? Perhaps this is a triumph, not a defeat. But I find people who don’t need ‘the good stuff’ to be incredibly dull.
One day, perhaps I’ll get into all the uncertainties which this book provoked in me. But provoking uncertainty is not the aim of a book like this, the aim is persuasion. We are meant to see the world in a different light – your light. I can’t imagine I’d ever concede that you’re right, yet there is that 5% of me that gnaws at the back of my head, telling me that possibly, just maybe, you understand the world better than I do. And that is what it means to really study our origins. Thank you for that.



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